The old adage goes: The most popular player on many football teams is the backup quarterback. BR-43 Minnesota is no exception.
That adage received an extra injection of support after cameras caught true freshman Demry Croft taking snaps during the second half of their offensively-challenged 10-7 victory over BR-112 Kent State, a game that saw Mitch Leidner struggle mightily for the third straight week.
The redshirt junior starter has been ridiculed, chastised, or disowned, sometimes all of the above, during the Gophers’ first three games of 2015. Like 2014, and during spot duty in 2013, Leidner has shown flashes of a Big Ten-worthy quarterback, but those moments are immediately followed (or preceded) by horrific decision-making and wobbly flips at the feet of a talent receiving corps. He finished Saturday’s game 17-for-27 for 184 yards and one touchdown, but it was the 10 passes he did not complete that have Gopher fans wondering if it’s time for a change.
Leidner was picked off twice by Kent State cornerback Demetrius Monday on badly under-thrown balls, one of which was targeted toward his throw-it-anywhere-high-and-I’ll-grab-it 6-foot-5, 205-pound freshman wideout Rashad Still. It produced one of many resounding groans from the 52,000 in attendance. The other audience responses came on missed third down throws and back-foot prayers toward the sideline.
The performance itself was not deserving of a demotion, nor were his games against BR-4 TCU or BR-67 Colorado State really, but, when looking at arguably Minnesota’s most talented roster in a few decades and the best defense in program history, it’s tough not to wonder when head coach Jerry Kill will add them up and pull the plug.
“I’m not going to make any comments on the quarterback,” Kill said during his postgame interview. “That’s not being disrespectful or anything like that, I’m not being mean or anything. It’s not fair of me to talk about anything with an individual kid. I’ll talk to you all on Tuesday after I watch the film.”
The Gophers haven’t won an outright conference title since before the Big Ten was even the Big Ten (Western Conference, 1941) and they havent tied for the Big Ten title since 1967. In fact, they haven’t finished better than fourth since 1986. They nearly defeated Wisconsin in their 2014 finale to capture the West crown and have every intention (and the talent) to take the next step in 2015.
Poor offensive line play hasn’t helped Leidner’s production, but the veteran-laden group has also faced eight, nine and even ten men in the box because of the total lack of a downfield threat. He is 59-for-107 for 614 yards on the season. His 55.1 completion percentage ranks 93rd in the FBS among qualified passers and his 43.5 Total QBR is 94th overall.
Although Leidner’s numbers are poor, there’s no guarantee (or even numbers to compare) Croft, a man who Kill said they would love to redshirt, can garner more defensive respect and find passing lanes. Croft was a three-star (Rivals) dual-threat quarterback recruit from Illinois who did not hold a single power-five scholarship offer outside of Minnesota. But he’s already beloved in Dinkytown, especially after repeated lore-like stories from the local media on his talent.
“The development is very good,” Kill told Joe Christensen of the Minneapolis Star Tribune last week. “He’s athletic. He throws it very well and gets it out of his hands quick. He has all the talent. He’s put a little weight on. He’s slight, but he can throw the ball, no question. And he can run it, all those kinds of things.
Fans might be calling for Kill’s staff to at least experiment with Croft but a change might not be so simple, even if Leidner has failed to put together a solid 60-minute performance. Leidner, from nearby Lakeville, has been in the program for four seasons, is a team captain, and in many ways, the face of the program despite his struggles. His approach is mature, professional and extremely level-headed and is the unquestioned team leader. Although there doesn’t appear to be concerns over how he would react to a demotion, it’s still a demotion for a player that’s appeared in 25 games over three seasons and has been adamantly supported by the coaching staff over the last nine months.
Minnesota faces BR-86 Ohio on Saturday before kicking off Big Ten play on October 3rd at BR-30 Northwestern. Struggling with Kent State inspired little confidence that they’ll comfortably dispose of the Bobcats but it’s highly likely that Kill won’t seriously consider a change until next week.